When Stephanie V. Gaitley took over the helm of the Fordham women’s basketball program in 2011, she preached defense and a “We before Me” attitude. It didn’t take long for that philosophy to turn into wins — two years later Gaitley’s charges won a school-record 26 games (12-2 in the Atlantic 10), and by 2013-14 the squad had claimed its first Atlantic 10 Championship and second NCAA Tournament appearance.
Heady stuff, for sure, but Gaitley and her team have more to accomplish. This year’s Rams have squared off against their toughest-ever non-league schedule, which so far has included top-level conference schools Penn State, Washington, Texas, Georgetown and Pittsburgh. While the 5-5 record might not look gaudy, Gaitley believed her veteran squad, which returns nine of its top 11 scorers from last year’s 24-10 squad that reached the third round of the Women’s NIT, would be ready for the challenge.
“The strength of schedule will really prepare us for Atlantic 10 games,” Gaitley said this week by telephone. “We respect all and fear none, and we will be ready for anything in league, playing nationally ranked teams from Power 5 conferences, playing three games in three days, 11 a.m. starts. It’s what you need to do to win games in the A-10 and win the championship.”
And while the majority of the squad returns, Gaitley has looked to a few players to fill the void left by the graduation of one of Fordham’s most productive student-athletes of all time, G’mrice Davis, an Honorable Mention WBCA All-American and First Team All-Atlantic 10 and Met Writers, and second Ram to reach 1000 points and 1000 rebounds. Players like standout guards Bre Cavanaugh and Kendell Heremaia and forward Mary Goulding have risen to the occasion.
“Bre has improved so much on defense; she was a great scorer last year, but this year we challenged her to bring that same intensity on defense and she has responded,” said Gaitley of her sophomore who led the team with 17.0 ppg and was second with 67 three point field goals. “She has a competitive spirit that you can’t teach, she hates to lose, and she wants the ball at crunch time. You can’t ask for anything more in a player.”
Heremaia, the Whangarei, New Zealand (way up in the Northland region, 150 km north of Auckland), native who mainly came off the bench in her freshman season, has been a mainstay in the starting lineup this year, averaging better than 10 ppg. “We thought she’d be the ‘X factor’ for us, and her leadership on and off the court are huge for us.” Fellow Kiwi (from Rangiora, just north of Christchurch on the island nation’s east coast) Goulding has provided the step-up that Gaitley expected of the senior as well.
Heremaia and Goulding are two of the foreign-born players on the squad, along with New Zealander Zara Jillings of Auckland and Nausori, Fiji’s Vilisi Tavui. The international flavor that has been a staple of Gaitley’s squads dating back to the great Erin Rooney in the coach’s first year at Rose Hill and even back to her days at St. Joseph’s.
“For the [U.S. born players,] it’s a chance to learn different cultures and perspectives. I think the foreign kids have an added sense of appreciation for what they have here and the opportunity they have. For a lot of them, there isn’t this opportunity back home. I’ve always thought a place like New Zealand has such untapped talent. In fact, when I went there to see Zara, that’s when I found Kendall, and it all has just worked out so well.”
And while the pipeline that Gaitley and her staff have connected from more than 9,000 miles away has been a catalyst in changing the program’s fortunes over the past eight years, no matter where the players come from (five U.S. states are represented on this year’s roster, let by three from across the Hudson River in N.J.), the mantra remains the same.
“Let the kids know you will go the extra mile for them,” Gaitley explains, “and they will do the same for you.”
— Fordham WBB (@FordhamWBB) February 22, 2018